Guildford Shakespeare Company celebrates 10th anniversary as nation marks Shakespeare 400
PUBLISHED: 12:38 29 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:31 29 April 2016
As the nation marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Guildford Shakespeare Company also happens to be celebrating its 10th anniversary. Matthew Williams meets the founders to discuss the Bard’s enduring appeal – and their ambitious plans for the future
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2016
If, while travelling around the Guildford area, you’ve happened across a ‘blood-soaked’ castle, people walking on water or a remarkably toad-like creature making a speedy getaway in a vintage motor car, the chances are you’ve happened across a Guildford Shakespeare Company production – well, that or a particularly ambitious student prank…
“One of the things we’ve realised in our first 10 years is that nothing is impossible,” laughs the ever-exuberant Matt Pinches, who I meet along with co-founder Sarah Gobran as the nation marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
“We work with magicians, whether it’s the actors, directors or technicians behind the scenes. They have made things happen over the years that at times we could have barely imagined – and often, if we’re completely honest, didn’t really expect to work!”
Anyone who has experienced a GSC production will need no reminding, but for the uninitiated, these intimate retellings of the Bard’s work have gone from strength to strength since the group’s formation in 2006.
Originally starting as a purely outdoor company, making the most of Guildford’s picturesque hidden corners, they’ve since expanded to winter shows in the town’s Holy Trinity Church, family performances featuring classics such as Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland and educational courses for kids and adults alike. So, as they look back on their first decade in this landmark year, the world has quite literally been their stage, to coin a phrase.
“It’s nice that our anniversary has coincided with the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, not that it was pre-planned,” laughs Sarah. “We weren’t exactly waiting around 10 years ago thinking, hang on, if we hold off starting up for a few months then... but isn’t coincidence a lovely thing sometimes?”
Both from acting backgrounds, they remain an engaging double act as they take me on a whistle- stop tour of the decade that was, and shed a little light on what promises to be a hugely exciting future for them – and, one suspects, for Guildford.
“The town does seem to be thriving culturally,” says Sarah. “It’s felt like it should have been for a long time. We’ve got all these amazing drama schools, but there was always very little actual work going round for them locally. There’s probably still nowhere near enough, but at least it seems to be heading in the right direction.
“We employed 87 artists last year, from actors to directors to costume and set designers, so it’s great to be flying our little theatrical flag for Guildford and Surrey.”
That flag is flying proudly for all to see, too. The company has gone through some major transitions in the past five years, including becoming a charity and taking on a board of trustees (“we learnt as we went along, but these people are experts with business acumen and are so generous with their time”), but it was the appearance of a certain larger-than-life theatre A-lister last year that truly sent them stratospheric.
“We were hugely fortunate to get Brian Blessed involved, as the amount of coverage we got for that – even internationally – was ridiculous,” laughs Matt, fondly. “It came round quite organically in a way, in that his daughter performed with us in Othello and he liked what he saw when he watched it with Kenneth Branagh. Then we found out that he fancied doing King Lear and would be interested in doing it with us, and, well, it wasn’t an especially difficult decision to make from there!
“He was absolutely fantastic, and continues to be so – he’s been so generous in agreeing to be a patron for our 10th year.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Speaking of which, I wonder if they’re ever surprised that Shakespeare continues to entice and excite in a way that so few other writers manage after centuries of having their work pulled apart and reassembled?
“I think the reason that his work continues to translate so easily into the modern day is that, fundamentally, it comes down to the relationships between people,” says Sarah. “Grief is the same; love is the same; a husband being irrationally jealous of his wife is the same… some of the words may have been lost to our modern ear over the past 400 years, but human emotion remains the same.”
Taking up the baton, Matt adds: “One of the things I love most about Shakespeare is how through the complexity of language he can really get to the bottom of these emotions too.
“Leontes, for example, in The Winter’s Tale, is a fractured mind. He’s a character overtaken by jealousy and accuses his best friend of cuckolding him. But after all these detailed images and colourful barbs in his words, at the end, the only thing he can say when his wife comes back to life is “oh, she’s warm”. It’s so simple.
“What do you say when you think someone you love is dead and you regret it with every inch of your body, and then you find out that they’re still alive? It’s so emotive.”
So, in the right setting, there’s little doubt that the Bard’s words continue to tug at our emotions – you only have to look at how many modern movies are based on his tales. To create that setting for a modern theatre audience, Matt, Sarah and their creative teams take a playful approach to his scripts – which, they say, is not too different from how it would have been 400 years ago.
“There’s certainly a rough-and-ready quality to our work that would have been the same back then, as his writing really doesn’t demand lots of props and moving scenery etc,” says Sarah.
“The biggest connection is between the character and the audience member, and as an actor being able to walk into the crowd – like we do sometimes – and perform certain lines almost directly to one person is such a powerful connection. It’s intimate and how it would have been.
“Of course, if it happens to be in a stunning setting and we’ve got a few additional tricks up our sleeves, that doesn’t necessarily hurt either.”
To give you an idea, their most recent production, The Winter’s Tale, was set in Victorian England and India, and featured dancers from the Cranleigh-based, Bollywood-inspired Just Jhoom; the five actors in Henry V at Guildford Cathedral were accompanied by a son et lumière-style projection featuring battle scenes, blood splatters and even useful facts; and their dip into Alice in Wonderland took people from the very church that Lewis Carroll preached in, through all the rooms of Guildford Museum and up into the Castle Grounds, where the king and queen of hearts were waiting.
“We’re always looking at ways to introduce Shakespeare to audiences who might never have fancied it before, while not putting off those who already love it,” says Matt.
“We do have people occasionally sitting down in the front row with the book but, usually, despite the fact we do jump over some passages, they’re won over by the end. People sometimes put Shakespeare on a pedestal – it becomes ‘I’m going to Shakespeaaare at the theataaare, daaahhrling’ etc – but we’ve always aimed to make it accessible to all. It’s so rich and so rewarding.”
A new home
Their ambitious use of the town’s heritage buildings and open spaces, rather than theatre stages, is just one of the ways they’ve made things more open to the public. It’s created a special bond with the people of Guildford, which they now hope to cement with a new home.
“We’ve just launched our New Beginnings fund-raising campaign, which has a target of £75,000,” says Matt. “We’re not looking for a theatre base, but are bursting at the seams behind the scenes and logistically it can be a nightmare. As our shows get larger and also more regular, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to bring everything together.”
With rehearsal space hired ad hoc, meaning that nothing can be left for the next session, and four storage spaces all around the town, including one in Sarah’s garden, it’s easy to see the complex operation that GSC has become.
“It can limit the creativity at times, if you’re wondering whether a prop might work but know you’d have to tackle the traffic across town just to try it out,” says Sarah. “With our education programmes thriving too, we’re only limited by the spaces we can get hold of.”
While keeping their eyes open for properties that can be rented or bought (“or donated!”), they did look into the Electric Theatre, which is currently open for offers, but decided that they weren’t “quite the right people for it” – especially as it is the peripatetic nature of the group that often brings in new audiences.
Taking up the story, Matt adds: “For us to find a space to keep GSC under one roof, and offer an incubation space for other upcoming theatre groups, is the dream. One of the biggest supporters we had when we were setting up was James Barber at the Yvonne Arnaud. Without being able to use their rehearsal space, we may never have got off the ground, so it would be amazing to offer others similar opportunities.”
To achieve their ambitions, they have set up a benefactor scheme, which has various levels starting with the £50 ‘Bottom’; they are also selling merchandise for the first time; and Matt will be tackling a sponsored walk from Stratford-upon-Avon to Shakespeare’s Globe, which is 146 miles, later this year.
“Let’s just say that it’s not my natural environment and I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for,” he laughs. “No, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and it follows a hypothetical route Shakespeare may have taken. This whole project is hugely exciting and it feels like the momentum is behind us.”
Adds Sarah: “We know how hard we work, but you don’t always necessarily realise just how popular it’s all become to others when you’re in the middle of it.”
They see their new home as the natural progression for a company that’s so proud of its hometown, they included it in their name.
“The people of Guildford have always been hugely supportive,” says Sarah. “And we hope we do our bit to give a little back, whether it’s shining a spotlight on the heritage of our town or by attracting all the people from London and further afield who come down for our shows and then eat out, have a drink somewhere, maybe come back a while later with their family. It’s always felt like a special connection, and we can’t wait to continue to build on it.”
It’s fair to say that, whatever the future holds, we can all continue to expect the unexpected from these most committed of Bard disciples, hopefully for many more decades to come.
GSA 2016 Dates for your Diary
• On Wednesday April 20, Will’s Birthday Bash will feature a talk at Hatchlands Park in the presence of the Cobbe portrait (arguably the only portrait of Shakespeare to have been taken from life).
• There will also be a weekend of Sonnet Walks in Guildford on Saturday April 23 and Sunday April 24 and a staged reading of Cymbeline on Saturday April 30.
• In the summer, GSC will be tackling A Comedy of Errors in the Castle Grounds from Tuesday June 14 to Saturday July 2, which is also where they staged their first ever production.
• This will be followed by Much Ado About Nothing, which will be their 30th production and was the first ever play they did, in the University of Law’s grounds from Friday July 15 to Saturday July 30.
• There will be a free exhibition at Guildford House Gallery throughout the summer, titled Muse of Fire, that will be charting the story of GSC.
• In the autumn, they’re set to step away from Shakespeare again and follow up the success of their family offerings of Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland, with their own special take on the Grimms’ Fairytales.
• Finally, a GSC gala fund-raiser will take place at Guildford Cathedral for one-night only in December (date to be announced) to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
• For more information about Guildford Shakespeare Company, visit their website at guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk
Shakespeare around Surrey
David Garrick and his Temple to Shakespeare at Painshill Park, Cobham, on Thursday April 7, 11am to 12.30pm: Discover more about the 18th century actor/manager, David Garrick, who played a major role in reintroducing the Bard to the play-going public and built a temple in the gardens of his Thameside house in Hampton in 1756 as his tribute to the playwright. Tickets: £15. More at painshill.co.uk
King John at Kingston’s Rose Theatre from Friday May 13 to Sunday June 5: Following the sell-out success of The Wars of the Roses last year, the Rose Theatre welcomes back the legendary director Trevor Nunn to direct Shakespeare’s epic battle of ascension, King John. It’s the penultimate play in Nunn’s epic undertaking to direct all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. More at rosetheatrekingston.org
Reigate Community Festival at Priory Park, Reigate, on Saturday July 2, 10.30am to 10.30pm: With a William Shakespeare theme announced for this annual event, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616, there is scope for all things thespian! They’re looking to hear from local drama groups who’d like to perform. More at reigate communityfestival.co.uk